Matt Berry - A Near Miss In Central Alaska

Matt Berry

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hey guys! My name is Matt Berry and I am an avid climber and alpinist with a passion for exploration which fuels me to travel the world in search of adventure in some of the most beautiful and remote mountains on the planet. 

I grew up in New Jersey where mountains are far and few between. As a kid, my parents brought my brother and I on annual camping trips throughout the east coast which sparked my initial interest in the outdoors, but it was not until my junior year of high school that I got my first real taste of the backcountry.

After a friend of mine brought a group of us out on a one-night backpacking trip in Harriman State Park in New York, I foolishly thought I was an expert on all things backpacking. Upon returning home, I quickly forged a plan and persuaded a group of close friends into joining me on a four-day backpacking trip in the high peak region of the Adirondacks in upstate New York. This remote wilderness was clearly the next logical place for my greenhorn group to set out on an adventure.

Leaving New Jersey at 2AM with a car full of gear and hand written map quest directions, a group of five of us drove north in pursuit of challenging trails in the ‘real’ mountains.

After a wrong turn that turned a 6 hour drive into 10, we had finally arrived at the trailhead. We made final gear preparations, downed energy drinks, and started hiking. After only a mile on the trail, with our enormous 75 liter backpacks overflowing with enough supplies to comfortably support a family for a week, we quickly began to realize just how difficult our objectives would be.

The miles on the trail felt never ending, the temperatures quickly plummeted, and the mud quickly turned to knee deep snow. We were already sleep deprived and in over our heads.

Over the next four days we learned many valuable lessons and were constantly humbled by the indescribable beauty of the mountain landscape and its never-ending challenges. I was immediately and completely hooked by the rawness, the freedom, the physical and mental challenge, and the simplicity of life in the mountains.

In the winter between my sophomore and junior year of college I began to learn how to rock and ice climb. Learning technical rope systems, risk management, and how to efficiently move in steep terrain was completely addicting. It was only a matter of a few months before I bought a full rack of gear necessary to lead traditionally protected rock climbs in the Shawangunks of New York.

I spent countless hours reading how to climb books, practicing rope systems at home, and climbing in the gym, but once I felt confident enough, I just wanted to get out there and give it a shot. I became completely enamored with the learning process and have been actively climbing and participating in mountain sports ever since.

After a wrong turn that turned a 6 hour drive into 10, we had finally arrived at the trailhead.

I have since been to 8 countries on about a dozen expeditions to climb rock, ice, and big mountains. It has been an incredible journey in which I have met some of the most inspiring people, seen unforgettable landscapes, and made life lasting memories with friends that I consider family. Climbing has moved beyond just a hobby to me and has become my lifestyle driving many of my biggest life decisions.

I am very fortunate that I have been able to combine my passions with my career working in Salt Lake City, Utah as an engineer for the climbing gear manufacturer Black Diamond Equipment where I am responsible for the testing of developmental climbing hardware products ultimately ensuring that the product design is safe and works as intended.

It has provided balance in my life and allows me to give back to a community which I love so much. It is exciting to play such a vital role in ensuring the safety of my friends and climbers everywhere who trust in our equipment.

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

In the spring of 2019, a close friend and I climbed the southwest ridge of peak 11,300 in the central range of Alaska. The climb ascends over 4,000 feet and involves lots of heavily corniced ridge climbing and some moderate ice and mixed climbing. We planned to climb the route over a period of two days and the forecast at the time, although a bit unsettled, looked ok by Alaska Standards.

We left base camp at around 3pm and made quick work through some fun terrain to the first col where we made a bivouac. As we settled in for the night we found out that our stove was not working. Although it had been tested several times during the trip, for unknown reasons, it did not want to light with either of our fuel canisters. Gas was flowing but we were unable to make water to drink and eat our freeze-dried meals. We tried all the tricks we knew of without any luck.

After a couple hours we relented to eating some granola bars and other on route food, drink some of the water we had left, and attempt to use body heat to melt some snow during the night in our sleeping bags.

We woke up feeling strong and rested. The weather looked reasonable. We had just enough food for another day and figured we could make it up and over the summit in a push back to base camp.

Using a similar method to the night before, we opted to mix some snow in our water bottles and keep it under our insulation layers against our core to melt water on the move. At this point I had roughly half a liter of water left but felt reasonably confident that this method would work well enough.

Snow conditions on the second day declined and made the going much slower than anticipated. This combined with a route-finding error that cost us a couple hours, led us to summiting much later than expected.

The weather slowly deteriorated throughout the day. The winds increased, the temperatures plummeted, and a light snow became consistent adding a small storm slab to the ridge.

As the sun started to dip behind the surrounding peaks around 8pm it became very apparent that my fingers were beginning to develop minor cold injuries and loose dexterity due to the lack of hydration. We did not summit until around 10pm and when we reached the summit in high winds we immediately dug a pit and set up our shelter to escape the winds and try to get warm.

Even with all our efforts, a decent amount of snow made its way into the tent during this process which dampened our down bags. We finished just about all of our food and took a sip of water each and then tried to get as much sleep as possible as we shivered through the night. Although uncomfortable, hungry, and thirsty, we felt pretty good overall and were happy to get some rest before the descent the next morning.

It had been an uncomfortable night of sleep often disrupted by the need to warm my frost nipped fingers, high winds testing the strength of our bivy tent, and bouts of uncontrollable shivering.

When I finally awoke to check the weather, I was disappointed to see that it appeared as if we were stuck inside of a ping pong ball with the winds still raging. Some level of visibility would be required to safely navigate our way around the crevasses and corniced ridges during the descent off the summit.

When I finally awoke to check the weather, I was disappointed to see that it appeared as if we were stuck inside of a ping pong ball with the winds still raging.

After sending a few messages via our satellite messenger, we were informed that we would have a potential weather window in the afternoon to get off the peak before a 3 day storm moved in.  

Without food and a working stove to make water, combined with the fact that our down sleeping bags were already wet, we knew that waiting out the storm would not be a good option and that we needed to capitalize on the opportunity to get down to base camp.

The winds died down and the clouds lifted around 11am at which time we immediately broke camp and began our descent. We were fortunate to come across perfect snow conditions which allowed for a quick descent from the summit to a prominent rock ridge where the rappels began.

With the sun out, we began to thaw out from the previous night and I continued to eat snowballs in an attempt to hydrate. The views of the great gorge, the mountain house, and moose’s tooth were nothing short of spectacular.

Once reaching the ridge we began a series of rappels broken up by sections of downclimbing leading down to the descent glacier below. The rappels went quickly and after pulling what looked to be the last rappel, we were deposited on a snow slope immediately above the descent glacier. A steep rollover onto the bergschrund guarded the entrance to the glacier below so we decided to make traverse over to a rock horn to make one last rappel.

Without much thought about the potentially wind loaded snow slope, I clipped the rope to myself and began the traverse while daydreaming about the comforts of base camp which was now visible in the distance. After a few steps, I felt as if something was off, but it was already too late.

In a heartbeat, I was tossed over a cliff band, over the bergschrund, and tumbled for over 300 feet onto the glacier below where I wound up buried up to my face. I was extremely fortunate that I wound up in a position in which I could breathe and was relatively unscathed. The sense of relief was overwhelming.

By the time I had dug myself and the rope out of the debris pile my partner had been able to descend to me using the tagline. We then proceeded back to the safety of base camp where we were happily greeted by the other climbers who had been watching the days events unfold from a distance.

I feel extremely fortunate to have made it out of this experience without any injuries. Later that night, a storm rolled in which dropped 4 feet of snow over the following three days. We had made it just in time.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

Spending time in the mountains has taught me many things, but most importantly it has taught me patience. The mountains have a way of simplifying things and reminding you about the important things in life. They have been my teacher, my therapist, my arena in which to test myself both physically and mentally, and a place in which some of my closest friendships have been forged. 

I grew up playing ice hockey and was an extremely competitive person. In my early years as a climber this competitiveness led to a lot of anxiety and stress when it became time to ‘perform’ and ‘get it done’. I got really down on myself when I failed to climb routes that should be well within my wheelhouse.

After a few steps, I felt as if something was off, but it was already too late.

It took several years for me to learn that by solely focusing on the summit, the top of a climb, or the finish line, I was overlooking the most valuable part of the experience. 

It is the process, the journey, to the summit that is most important. That is where the memories are made and where the lessons are learned. It is not the summits that I remember most, it is the stories made during the climb with close friends that are memories I cherish most.

Mountains are not there to be conquered. They are there to teach us and provide a venue in which we can create our own experiences. 

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

I would say that my cell phone is my favorite item in my pack. I use it to take pictures, to write journal entries, to navigate, research route beta, for music or silly videos to lighten the mood and as an emergency beacon.

Also, sour patch kids or gummy bears. I don’t leave the trailhead without them!

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

My advice for everyone getting into hiking, climbing, or any other outdoor pursuit is to just get out there and make some memories. Set goals and do not limit yourself because you think you are not fit or strong enough.

Spending time in the mountains has taught me many things, but most importantly it has taught me patience.

Everyone starts at a different level, but you simply will not get the experiences you're looking for if you don’t get out there and try! 

Secondly, do not rush the learning process! Being a ‘newbie’  and learning new skills is extremely exciting and you will progress quicker than you think.

This is a photo Matt Berry took of Tocllaraju from base camp in the Cordillera Blanca of Peru.

Lastly, remember that when things get serious, your ego starts screaming, or you are just not feeling it, take a deep breath and realize that this is supposed to be fun. The mountains are not going anywhere. You can always return another day when you are more prepared or the conditions are better. As Paulo Coelho, the author of “The Alchemist'' would say, we are all just trying to fulfill our personal legend. 

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

I would say that the most influential person in my life was my father. He taught my brother and I to dream big, follow your dreams, be honest, and treat everyone and everything you do with respect. 

Mountains are not there to be conquered. They are there to teach us and provide a venue in which we can create our own experiences.

As for some resources, anyone who is planning to get into the outdoors should give “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” a read which is essentially the bible of climbing. Also, Bill Bryson’s “A walk in the Woods” is a hilarious read. 

Where’s your next adventure?

I will be heading back into the central range in Alaska this spring. My partner and I hope to get redemption on Mt. Huntington as well as explore some other areas such as the Moose’s Tooth and the Kahiltna glacier

Climbing in Alaska is such a wild experience. You fly into these remote areas on a small aircraft, with all the supplies you could possibly need, and then once the plane is gone, you are completely alone, surrounded by massive mountains and glaciers. It is surreal and extremely attractive to an alpine climber.

Another trip I am looking into for 2020 is visiting Switzerland to climb the north face of the Eiger.  Not only is this route a legendary part of climbing history, I have never been to Europe. Combining the climb with a BASE jump off of the legendary mushroom exit on the north face would be a proper way to round out the trip. 

Where can others learn more about you?

I am currently working on building a personal webpage which will be deployed to but until then You can find me on instagram @matt_berry

I hope to see you all in the hills!

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